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Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered, a review

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida

As of August 2012 this is the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year. Professor Sumida brings a potentially dry topic to life making Alfred Thayer Mahan relevant in the process; as indeed, he should. At a mere 117 pages of moderately footnoted text, Sumida provides the reader a grand tour of Mahan’s life work, not just The Influence of Sea Power 1660-1983. Sumida includes the major works of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s (ATM) father Dennis Hart Mahan, as he introduces ATM’s major works, lesser works, biographies, essays, and criticisms.

Sumida begins his chapters with quotes, and weaves his recounting of ATM’s work with musical performance, Zen enlightenment, and naval command; which is quite a combination, but convincing. Of ATM’s “approach to naval grand strategy” he writes:

Mahan believed the security of a large and expanding system of international trade in the twentieth century would depend upon the creation of a transnational consortium of naval power. His handling of the art and science of command, on the other hand, was difficult, complex, and elusive. It is helpful, therefore, to achieve an introductory sense of its liminal character by means of analogy.

This is where musical performance and Zen enlightenment become relevant and instructive. Sumida writes on musical performance:

Teaching musical performance…poses three challenges: improving art, developing technique, and attending to their interaction.

Sumida goes on to illustrate the parallels between learning musical performance and naval command/strategy and the common thread is performing or, “doing it.” He writes that most musical instruction is through the understudy watching demonstrations by the master, but the higher purpose of replicating the master’s work is “to gain a sense of the expressive nature of an act that represents authentically a human persona.” In other words, the development of relevant tacit knowledge, or as I have come to refer to this as “tacit insight.”

Sumida continues with six short chapters that pack a powerful punch and a good introduction to the trajectory of Mahan’s work from the beginning to end. My favorite was Chapter Six, The Uses of History and Theory. In this chapter Sumida deals with complexity, contingency, change, and contradiction, naval supremacy in the Twentieth Century, Jomini, Clausewitz, and command and history. Quite a line-up, but a convincing inventory of Mahan’s influences and how his work remains relevant today. Sumida writes:

Mahan’s role as a pioneer and extender of the work of others has been widely misunderstood and thus either ignored or misused. The general failure to engage his thought accurately is in large part attributable to the complexity of his exposition, the difficulties inherent in his methods of dealing with several forms of contingency, changes in his position on certain major issues, and his contradictory predictions about the future and application of strategic principles…His chief goal, however, was to address difficult questions that were not susceptible to convincing elucidation through simple reasoning by analogy. He thus viewed history less as a ready-made instructor than a medium that had to be worked by the appropriate intellectual tools.. Mahan’s analytical instruments of choice were five kinds of argument: political, political-economic, governmental, strategic, and professional.

The first three were used in grand naval strategy, the latter two with the “art and science of command.” The section of Command and History is particularly relevant given two recent posts, one at the USNI Blog, The Wisdom of a King, by CDR Salamander, and the other in a September 2012 Proceedings article by LCDR B.J.Armstrong, Leadership & Command. Here’s why: Sumida quotes Admiral Arleigh Burke, who latter became Chief of Naval Operations, during WWII. Of “Decentraliztion,” Burke wrote:

…means we offer officers the opportunity to rise to positions of responsibility, of decision, of identity and stature—if they want it, and as soon as they can take it.

We believe in command, not staff. We believe we have “real” things to do. The Navy believes in putting a man in a position with a job to do, and let him do it—give him hell if he does not perform—but be a man in his own name. We decentralize and capitalize on the capabilities of our individual people rather than centralize and make automatons of them. This builds that essential element of pride of service and sense of accomplishment.

The U.S. Navy could do worse than return to this “father” of naval strategy and give his ideas more attention; Professor Sumida’s little book would be a good place to start.

Strongest recommendation—particularly to active duty Navy personnel.

Cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

Tom Barnett Waves Goodbye to the Blogosphere

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett has left the building…..

Hiatus for now, decisions to follow

I’m going to shut down this blog for the foreseeable future.

My career and workload have evolved significantly since the recession hit, and I just find that I can’t justify the time and effort required to keep the blog running.  Other opportunities/responsibilities beckon, and that array doesn’t value/support this endeavor, so while I’ve enjoyed it, this is simply an adjustment I need to make.

I will keep the site up for now.

I will continue to keep writing at places that can pay.  I just realize that I’ve come to the end of a career model that says I can play LoneWolf@eponymous.com and make that work.  A bit sad, as it’s been fun, but as someone who hates to repeat himself and loves to always move onto the next experience/model, I likewise enjoy the pressure to reinvent myself.  I just can’t move down that path while simultaneously maintaining the old one–not enough hours in the day….

Sad to see Tom shut down his fine blog but I respect his motivations. Furthermore, while Dr. Barnett always had his detractors on the margin, it is undeniable that he and his ideas about grand strategy had a significant impacton both the public and the policy elite where “the Brief” from The Pentagon’s New Map enjoyed a cult status for a number of years. It was Tom more than any other “thought leader”, whose globetrotting briefing sessions brought military theory and strategy to a general public confused about the tumults of the post 9-11 world.

I’d like to take a moment and thank Dr. Barnett for several acts of kindness over the years, for the friends I have met as a result of sharing a common interest in his work and the stimulating exchanges we have had from time to time that still influence my thinking on strategy and policy. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will still be hearing from Tom in op-eds, magazines, journals, books for years to come.

Monday, May 21st, 2007


Steve DeAngelis of ERMB has been posting from (and about) Kurdistan in Iraq the past week while on a visit for Enterra Solutions. Collectively, Steve’s posts provide in- depth, on-site, analysis of Kurdistan’s present and future prospects with an emphasis on regional and global economic integration, security and systemic resilience; here they are in chronological order:

1. An Overview of Kurdistan

2. Resilience in Kurdistan

3. 3 days in Iraq from the Syrian/Turkish border to the Iranian border

4. Lessons from the Edge of Globalization: 3 days in Iraq from the Syrian/Turkish Border to the Iranian Border

5. Security in Kurdistan

(There were also several other Iraq-related posts “Interagency Feuding Over Iraq Reconstruction” and ” Coffee for the Troops“)

It would be difficult for me to briefly summarize in a mere paragraph what DeAngelis has impressively written about Kurdistan being on the ” Edge of Globalization” in roughly 6000 words. Therefore, I’m going to pick out a number of select excerpts that give the feel of the sum of Steve’s observations, followed by my commentary:

“We then headed further west to the border crossing checkpoint with Turkey. We entered a small U.S. military post on the border and saw how this border is managed. Completely full trucks, stretching for miles into Turkey loaded with any product you can imagine are seeking to deliver their products to buyers in Iraq. However, on the opposite side of the border another story unfolds. There is a two week wait (yes, I said two weeks!) for trucks coming from Iraq to cross into Turkey. Along the road are makeshift housing facilities equipped with satellite dishes that drivers can use during their two-week wait along a dusty and dirty road that moves trucks from one holding pen to another as they creep up to the border inspection stations in Iraq and then to their equivalent inspection stations in Turkey….

I’d be curious to know how much of this Turkish inefficiency is explicable due to legitimate security issues with the PKK, how much is due to local corruption, understaffing and incompetence and how much is calculated policy on the part of Ankara to choke Kurdish economic growth.

….Virtually all of the trucks crossing back into Turkey from Iraq are completely empty. If there were robust manufacturing and other commercial business operations in Iraq, these trucks would be full of products to be sold in Turkey and to the rest of the world as they transit through Turkey’s ports. The only kind of trucks that do cross fully loaded are 3,000 gallon tankers filled with Iraqi oil destined for a Turkish power generation facility just over the border. The electricity produced by the plant is sold back to the Iraqi’s at western market rates. What this obviously says is that Iraq has the raw materials but does not possess the production capability to turn oil into electricity and as such pays a tremendous financial and strategic price for this lack of capacity. The net result of this border crossing reality is a Current Account trade imbalance of almost 100% between Turkey and Iraq”

Steve is correct that this ad hoc mercantilist trade scenario is problematic for Kurdistan. Historically, nations that are raw commodity exporters, regardless whether it was cotton, rubber, oil, strategic minerals or foodstuffs end up in a unfavorable position vis-a-vis value-added production trading partners or merchant capital states. This applies whether we are discussing Ptolemaic Egypt and ancient Rome or the Gulf states today and the Core.

One caveat on the negative trade balance issue for Kurdistan would be the financial flows of Black Globalization. Lacking orderly markets and effective governance, ordinary Iraqis rely upon the black market for access to desired luxuries as well as necessities such as medicines or spare parts for machinery. Controlling a long border with Turkey, Iran ans Syria gives Kurdish actors the ability to become middlemen in the flow of goods and money which does not show up on the legal balance sheet. Ultimately, Barzani and Talabani’s regional Kurdish government must bring this trade above ground and normalize the economic relationships ( include taxes and customs duties).

“The Peshmerga welcomed U.S. forces and fought side-by-side with them in the effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It is estimated that there are between 80,000 and 100,000 active Peshmerga in Kurdistan. As the attached picture of a Peshmerga soldier taken near Dohuk shows (click to enlarge), the Peshmerga are a modern and well-equipped fighting force. The Peshmerga also allow women to serve. This tradition began when the Peshmerga were a guerilla force fighting to make the Kurdish area of Iraq a safe haven. Women also fought alongside coalition forces at the beginning of the current conflict. The attached picture shows female Peshmerga celebrating the fall of Kirkuk. “

The Peshmerga have been a coherent military force(s) far longer than I have been alive. Or Steve Deangelis for that matter. Or probably any of my readers. (The ferocious and mercurial Mustafa Barzani, sire of Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish president and KPD chieftain, was once the darling of American conservatives who hated Henry Kissinger. And long before that, tribal lord Barzani was the protege of… Joseph Stalin ! History has made the Kurds the ultimate realists). Former CIA field operative in Kurdistan Robert Baer put the Peshmerga fighting credibly toe to toe with Saddam Hussein’s best Republican Guard divisions during the 1990’s. That ain’t hay folks. Even in the 1990’s decline the Republican Guard was heavily armed and well-trained, despite being hamstrung by Saddam’s increasing paranoia.

The Peshmerga are perfectly suited for 4GW warfare as they combine tight military discipline, clan networks and strong primary loyalties with concurrent conventional and guerilla warfare skills. They also benefit from American patronage and a leadership that has proven unusually adept at presenting an image and engaging in politics in the international arena.

“Another new friend, Subbas Sircar, who is the regional vice president of AIG for the Middle east, Mediterranean and South Asia, had an interesting morning meeting with local bankers. They are seeking to expand and strengthen local banks as I discussed earlier. This group craved exposure to current international banking best practices, core banking information technology and know-how that would allow them to connect to the global banking industry as well as the training and education that would allow staff members to raise themselves up to a minimal level of maturity so they can foster commerce in their region. This experience with bankers in Sulaimaniyah and in Erbil, along with the telecommunications companies seeking the same capability in their industry, are proof positive of the need for Development-in-a-Box™.”

I think Steve is identifying a critical tipping point for Kurdistan. Leapfrogging the bazaari mentality to create a financial structure that inspires enough confidence to attract and sustain legitimate foreign investment and diversify Kurdish reliance on Turkish capital and American aid would be a milestone. This probably would not mean ” best practices” in the sense of Chase Manhattan so much as ” best enough practices” relative to the region. ” Good enough” is what gets a healthy level of local economic growth going. ” Best” can wait for the day the Republic of Kurdistan applies for admission to the WTO and the EU.

Today, Kurdistan is a nation with a virtual state shepherding its interests. More than Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, the regional government in Kurdistan is less than Taiwan. But like Taipei, the Barzani-Talabani regional government seeks to negotiate or leverage de jure status and the full sovereignty of statehood over the virulent objections of a powerful neighbor and a nervous American patron. Economic development and integration with other global power centers ( EU, China, India, Japan, Russia) will be the key for the Kurds to create a scenario where Ankara can swallow – however bitterly, even with with ironclad security guarantees – Kurdish independence, because it will be in Turkey’s economic best interests to do so.


Kurdistan Rebalancing the Middle-East” and “Iraq Travel Guide” by Chirol

The Kurdistan Problem: Part I “, “The Kurdistan Problem: Part II“, “The Kurdistan Problem: Part III by midtowing at ProgressiveHistorians

Response to Virtual Nations Will Shape World Order or Disorder by Adrienne Redd

The Rise of the Virtual StateWealth and Power in the Coming Century” by Richard Rosecrance

Market-state vs. Virtual State” by John Robb

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